Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Smiths and Catholicism

In A Light that Never Goes Out, the author Tony Fletcher places the phenomenon of The Smiths in the socio-political history of 1980’s Britain, paying particular attention to the city of Manchester, the birthplace of the pop group. The sifting of contextual details provides Fletcher with new methods with which to evaluate the music of The Smiths and their continuing influence.

Fletcher contends that the unique creative energies that shaped the songs of The Smiths are inextricably bound up with, for example, local geography: Whalley Range, the moors, Rusholme. Figures such as Myra Hindley, Alan Sillitoe and Margaret Thatcher inform the content and textural feel of these songs. Fletcher sets out to show that Morrissey’s magpie appropriation of ideas were as much cultural as they were musical - beside the vinyl of The New York Dolls you would find a copy of A Taste of Honey.

One of these cultural influences was the Irish, working class Catholicism that both Morrissey and Marr were weaned on as “cradle Catholics”. Catholic parish churches and schools had been created in the nineteenth century as the loci of community cohesion and identity. This remained the case into the twentieth century and, indeed, up until the present time. The famous Loreto College, founded by the sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854, was very much a defining presence in Manchester and could be seen from the Morrissey’s terraced house on Queen’s Square.

It is hard to determine the veracity of Morrissey’s version of his childhood Catholicism and that is, in part, because Tony Fletcher’s own antipathy to Catholicism colours his judgement. It suits Fletcher to accept Morrissey’s sour version of events. Morrissey never lets the truth get in the way of a good turn of phrase - his self portrait of the artist as a young man feels too contrived to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. An example of this is the following account of his disenchantment with the Catholic Faith. It sounds “quite absurdly” partial:

I came from a monstrously large family who were quite absurdly Catholic...when I was six there were two serious tragedies (the death of two grandparents) within the family which caused everybody to turn away from the church, and quite rightly so, and from that period onwards there was just a total disregard for something that was really quite sacrosanct previous to the tragedies.

But, in fact, there was not a total disregard for Catholicism in the Morrissey household - far from it. Morrissey would go on to make his First Holy Communion, Confession and Confirmation. He would attend St Mary’s secondary school, becoming a member of Margaret Clitherow House. His childhood and teenage years were immersed in Catholicism which would later feed his lyrical imagination. The affectionate, music hall song, Vicar in a Tutu, with its monkish monsignor advising, "My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned" is one of the few compositions which references religion explicitly. Yet, there is a Catholic sensibility that informs these songs of death, martyrdom and immortality.

“Those Catholics, they really nab you when you’re young,” Morrissey admitted to Douglas Coupland in a 2006 interview, “They sear you. They sear you, they do.” This contradicts the simplistic view that Morrissey abandoned his Catholic faith to become the prodigal son of popular music. Far from being a cosmetic addition to his being, Morrissey senses that his Catholic Faith has transformed him ontologically, in ways so profound that he cannot rationalise them away. Morrissey’s relationship to his faith is more complex and subtle than Fletcher would have us believe.

One of Morrissey’s heroes, Oscar Wilde, famously said that “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.” Wilde, of course, did die a Catholic. Given his family background, Catholicism was the only religion that Morrissey could have been born into. At his death, will Morrissey meet Wilde at the cemetery gates? I wouldn't bet against it.


  1. Yes, indeed. I've often had similar thoughts about two other (slightly less well-known, but in their way much loved and celebrated) "indie-ish" singer-songwriters of the 1980s: Stephen Duffy, of the Lilac Time; and Robert Forster, of the Go-Betweens. If anything the explicitly and specifically Catholic references that are sprinkled among their creations (despite both men in adulthood not being practicing Catholics) are more notable and widespread than is the case among the Smiths' oeuvre.

  2. I think a similar influence exists with Oasis and the Gallagher brothers